Stop. I want you to think about how many things you are working on right now? You probably have about five to six different tabs open in your browser, add to that your email client, IDE perhaps a terminal or two. Am I getting close? You know how I know? Because that’s what’s currently open on my laptop as I type this post.
We have become the distracted generation. Our phones are constantly beeping, the notifications on our desktops are popping up with more and more frequency. We struggle to have conversations where one person (or sometimes even both) pay attention for the entire conversation. Don’t believe me? You might not notice it any more, but try having a conversation with someone at work and see how long before they are looking at their phone or their monitor.
There have been numerous studies that have shown that we are really bad at true multitasking, it seems like with training you can teach yourself to focus on two things at once however you still will only do them at half efficiency. Most of us just do inefficient (and mentally exhausting) context switches. There have even been studies that have proved that multitasking causes a significant decrease to your IQ (here). Over all it’s a pretty nasty habit and yet we all do it.
Seem like according to science we have four slots in our “working” memory. That’s why sometimes when we try to solve a rather tricky problem or remember something critical we close our eyes, it’s to prevent something we see go into our working memory and take up one of those precious slots.
Sometimes we use multitasking to avoid having to do something which we perceive to be unpleasant. It makes us feel like we are accomplishing things while not having to actually work on whatever we are trying to avoid. It seems like when our brain thinks that the task we have to perform next is unpleasant it will channel our attention in other directions to try and avoid causing us pain. However a interesting study shows that just two minutes into a task that was previously seen as unpleasant is usually long enough for your brain to figure out that the task is not painful and then to release dopamine as a reward for overcoming your fear. I have a lot more to say on procrastination, however I need to focus and get back on topic.
Back to focusing, here is the thing. In this day and age it’s becoming more difficult, but it’s still achievable. Here are some tips that I use when I need to focus on something and get it done.
1) Switch off your email clients notifications, you know that little popup that shows up at the bottom right of your screen whenever one of your colleagues finds a funny picture on the internet and shares it with everyone?
2) Switch your phone on silent and put it upside down (by the way this is a great tip for when you are speaking to someone face to face or in a group meeting, you don’t want to be the person always on their phone, trust me your manager notices).
3) Earphones and music. Don’t listen to new music, rather listen to songs that you know. Also I would suggest something with a fast tempo, you don’t want to fall asleep.
4) Use the Pomodoro Technique, this is a neat little trick that I use a lot. If I am struggling to focus on something I set a timer to twenty five minutes, sometimes a bit less sometimes a bit more. I also tell myself that after twenty five minutes I will reward myself maybe with some coffee or a quick walk. Once the timer starts I find it pretty easy to get into the flow because I know that twenty five minutes isn’t that long and I know that I will feel great afterwards.
5) Focus on Process not Product. This is a tip I picked up a while back. When the end goal (product) is something really big (a new system) things can seem overwhelming sometimes it feels like no matter how much effort you will put in you will fail. When you start feeling overwhelmed you might be tempted to just give up. This is where focusing on the Process helps, forget all the work that still needs to get done, work out what the next logical step is, set up your twenty five minute timer and get cracking (a thousand mile journey starts with one step, but you need to keep stepping to finish)
There is another benefit of being able to focus. It’s when you are in bed, just before you go to sleep and you are at peace with yourself because you’ve done the best you can and you are looking forward to giving tomorrow your best as well.
Until next time, may you know the joys of trying your hardest and being guilt free